About the artwork
The British artist, James Holland (1800-1870) started out as a decorative china painter in the 1820s and then developed during the 1840s into one of the most prolific painters of popular Venetian views. His pictures were bought by prosperous middle-class people; the same sort of people who, once the railway was built to Venice in 1844, were able to travel quickly, comfortably and comparatively inexpensively to take holidays in the city. The Lady Lever Art Gallery has five of Holland's characteristic Venetian paintings. They are mostly small and this view is probably the best of them.
The picture shows the small square that after Piazza San Marco is the most important in Venice. The view is towards the 13th century gothic facade of the large Dominican church of San Giovanni e Paolo-the so-called "Pantheon of the Doges". From the foreground canal side of the Rio de Mendicanti the funeral procession of every Doge of Venice from the 15th century onwards disembarked and made its way on foot across the square and into the church for requiem mass. The tombs of 25 Doges are inside, just outside the church walls.
The equestrian statue on a large plinth in the centre of the square is by the Florentine sculptor Verocchio and is of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1476), the famous condottiere (mercenary military commander) who had served the Republic of Venice as a very successful general – principally in wars against Milan.
On his death Colleone was buried in a chapel erected in his native Bergamo, but he left his enormous fortune of 100,000 ducats to the city of Venice on condition that a statue of himself was erected "in the piazza in front of San Marco.” Whilst the government of Venice wanted- indeed, needed-Colleoni's money for their wars against the Turks, they were reluctant to erect such a substantial monument celebrating an individual in the principal civic space of the city. A compromise solution was reached by erecting it instead on this site.
Next to the church and not visible in this picture is the religious fraternity building of the Scuole of San Marco. By erecting Colleoni's monument in the piazza in front of this building the authorities could be said to have technically fulfilled the terms of his will-putting it "super platea S. Marco" as stipulated. Nineteenth-century tourists standing before this statue were often entertained by their guides with this information (as they are today), usually citing it as yet another example of the legendary self-serving cunning of the Venetian state.
At the foot of the statue is a vegetable-seller lying down beside some pumpkins. Behind him are other sellers shielded from the hot sun by rectangular sheets of canvas.
A hawker with a tray of religious trinkets and texts stands nearby. To the left beside the church are a group of praying women. Kneeling or standing, holding tapers or candles they are before an outside altar. In front of Colleoni's statue stands a black figure in a tri-cornered hat. All these people in the painting are picturesque visual clichés – imaginary stock 18th century Venetian characters of the kind that typically are found in the paintings of the greatest of 18th century view painters, Canaletto.
Holland signed and dated his picture to 1848. He was almost certainly not in Venice at that time. In 1848 Venice was in turmoil and foreign tourism had ceased. A revolution had taken place in Spring 1848 resulting in the expulsion of Venice's Austrian rulers and the setting up of a short-lived independent republic headed by Daniele Manin. Bombardment by cannon, food-rationing, unemployment and cholera were among the problems faced by the populace of the parish of San Giovanni e Paolo during this republican interlude. At least one food riot took place in this square at this time. None of this unsettling contemporary detail disturbs this view.
Holland's pictures fit in with a pattern of Venice view-painting by British artists that grew from about 1820 onwards. Clarkson Stanfield and Turner represented the top end of the market. The latter exhibited Venice subjects most years from 1833 until 1848 at the Royal Academy, which were his best-selling works. There was even a popular Venice Diorama that people could visit in London. At the other end of the market were slight, cheap formulaic watercolours. Most borrowed the famous viewpoints popularised by Canaletto. Only towards the end of the 19th century was modern Venice painted and even then usually much romanticised.
An mp3 recording of Frank Milner's gallery talk on 'View of the Piazza San Giovanni e Paulo' is available online.